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Billy King: Rites Again

Billy King

Number 178: April 2010  

[Go back to the related issue of Nonviolence News)

Speaking Frankly

Saw Dave Duggan’s play “Still, the Blackbird Sings – Incidents at Ebrington Barracks”, about Francis Ledwidge at the Cultúrlann in Belfast during its tour (direction by Caitríona McLaughlin, production by Jonathan Burgess). I found both the play and production powerful – there was a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes during the final scene because of the sheer power of the juxtaposition being enacted. I suppose poetry is seen generally as one of the finest of the ‘fine arts’ (using that term rather loosely) and that juxtaposition with warfare, its apotheosis, is perhaps why we can be so fascinated by ‘war poets’, a term which might seem to be one of the ultimate oxymorons. Of course poetry is not about the polite, or it shouldn’t be, and it can speak about the bleakest of situations in the most effective way, but the medium and the message can provide a stunning contrast.

Francis Ledwidge, from a Co Meath peasant background, was one of those who decided, as an Irish nationalist, to fight for the British in the First World War. The premise was that, Irish nationalists having stood up and been counted when the chips were down, the British would treat the Irish nationalist cause fairly. In this he was simply wrong. In both the First and Second World Wars the British were making promises to Ireland or sections of Irish people that they could not guarantee keeping or had no intention of keeping (e.g. ending partition if the Free State came into the Second World War). Francis Ledwidge, and many others like him and unlike him, were brave and dedicated but, in the event, politically wrong or naïve (others may have been foolhardy and naïve). Part of the problem in remembering those from Ireland who have fought for the British is acknowledging the risk they took, the sacrifice they made, while also pointing to the imperial nature of the war being fought, and political realities behind it all. The Second World War was also an anti-fascist struggle, and it is important to acknowledge that, though it grew directly out of the embers of the First World War (I have covered this ground before and don’t want to rehash my arguments on this).

Going back to Dave Duggan’s play on Francis Ledwidge, it was a powerful evocation of a poet and his place and time, and the dilemmas he faced. It is set in Derry in later 1916 when Ledwidge was back from the front. It stayed true to the context and did not ask questions that were out of its place and time. To go to war and not know what you were facing was easy; the play depicts some of what it was like knowing what they faced, and yet they did, and how, like so many people in the world, we deal with having divided loyalties of one kind of another – Ledwidge celebrated 1916 Rising leader Thomas McDonagh in one of his best known poems. Maybe he had the courage to see his choice right through to the, bitter, end. If “Still, the Blackbird Sings” does the rounds near you, I would strongly recommend a visitation.

A blackbird singing
On a moss-upholstered stone,
Bluebells swinging,
Shadows wildly blown,
A song in the wood,
A ship on the sea.

The song was for you
and the ship was for me.

A blackbird singing
I hear in my troubled mind,
Bluebells swinging,
I see in a distant wind.

But sorrow and silence,
Are the wood's threnody,
The silence for you
and the sorrow for me.

(from “To One Dead” by Francis Ledwidge)

More than my job’s worth

I don’t always try to represent the zeitgeist but at least to be aware of it, and often deal with it. The ‘z’ word is an interesting one that flourishes on the page but may labour a bit in spoken language, and, in English (or certainly in languages other than German), raises the question of how you pronounce it (the ‘geist’ is as in ‘poltergeist’ I believe). But how much with the zeitgeist was I when told that I had been ‘provisionally selected for redundancy’. Now that was taking this zeitgeisty thing too far…..but an ‘interesting’ experience to live through.

My main paid occupation is part-time and has been so for almost two decades. That enables me to contribute to family income and get on with the rest of my life, doing more things that are unpaid than paid but certainly giving me the flexibility and capability to do a significant amount (well, 31.65%) of the things I want to do in life, which working full time would not permit. My partner working full-time permits me this luxury. Fortunately I have also tried to develop my skills base despite my advancing years because otherwise redundancy would place me on the scrap heap.

It was just as that I had worked out (to 80% surety I had said) what was coming when my update on the job reviews situation told me I had been ‘provisionally selected for redundancy’. It was a bit obvious beforehand. I was relatively easy to get rid of, from the decision makers’ knowledge, or lack of it, about what I did, and might have seemed peripheral to the enterprise (obviously I would have seen it differently, as did others) which is in the not-for-profit sector. But the giveaway was that a second person was coming to the meeting who is extremely busy and certainly did not need to come to simply ‘update’ me. That made the initial meeting easier, knowing what was coming.

For the subsequent actual meeting to discuss my response to the proposal to make me redundant, I opted not to have someone else with me, as I was entitled, but rather to present a short, two page, paper. And I’m glad I did it that way. They could be in no doubt about what I did – they didn’t actually know, nor my proper job title - and the paper was relayed to the others on the committee making the decisions, and some people made representations on behalf of the work I did and on my behalf. I felt I had made the best play I could. Before hearing the result I thought the odds were 2 to 1 that I would be made redundant but that still left a significant chance; not to make me redundant they would not only have had to row back on their initial decision to proceed with my redundancy but also have simultaneously felt they had found another way forward to cut costs. Having initiated the process of redundancy it had its own momentum and the timing (which they had initiated) did not permit such explorations.

The final decision, communicated to me when I had been hanging around most of the evening having asked for (and been offered) the decision by tea-time, was yes, redundant, out on my ear by the summer. I wasn’t at all anxious at tea-time, I simply wanted the decision so I could get on with my life, but by after 9 pm when the phone call came I was extremely anxious – more due to the delay than the gravity of the decision.

I took the opportunity, in a post-notice of redundancy meeting, to share in written format a) the things they did right and, more prominently, wrongly, and b) what an alternative, more positive and open process might have been. The latter might have led, a few months later, to my redundancy if the decision makers made the same choice between retaining particular roles within the organisation but would have had an open process of debate and exploration, including of needs within the organisational structures and funding possibilities (none of which was looked at). If I was made redundant under the latter kind of process I would have felt there had been a genuine attempt to retain me and that my work was valued by those making the decisions (none of which I feel now).

I look forward to taking forward my other skills which received no development in the job concerned. But it’s always sad to close a particular chapter, particularly when it was not of my choosing. I hope the zeitgeist doesn’t extend to difficulty in getting paid work which, for me at this stage, may be undertaken on a project by project basis rather than as an employee (‘freelance’ is for medieval knights or soldiers although I suppose I could be ‘freeproject’, ‘freekeyboard’, ‘freevoice’, ‘freehand’ – though that sounds like drawing - or ‘freehead’). Wish me luck.

What I find fascinating, and sometimes painful, in middle age is being the subject of other people’s decisions in work arenas (not just in the case above but other contract work). Having made the decision not to go climbing up any careering ladders, for reasons to do with how I want to live my life, I find myself continually amazed at how bad some organisational decision making can be. You might say, he would say that, wouldn’t he, when I am on the receiving end of negative decisions rather than having the opportunity of making them, and I am aware all of us have schatomas lurking about (hidden things about ourselves we don’t know or understand). But I find that decisions are continually made on the basis of conjecture, mistaken analysis, poor planning, an absolutely amazing lack of consultation and communication, and so on. No wonder I place a large emphasis on group working and dynamics and consensus decision making. We have a lot to learn.

Anyway, enough angst for one month [I never really thought of you as angst-ious until now – Ed] [But I thought of you as pun-itive – Billy]. The snow is on the hills and the summer is coming. I hope you are keeping well and I wish you the best until we meet again, I know where and I know when, and I hope it’ll be a sunny day by this time next month, Billy.

Who is Billy King?
A long, long time ago, in a more innocent age (just talking about myself you understand), there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train' and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor around with you).

Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little about horses even if someone with a similar name is found astride them on gable ends around certain parts of Norn Iron).

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